WITH ITS TWISTING TRAILS AND plunging canyons, the Angeles National Forest, 25 miles north of Los Angeles, is a wonder of nature that has long been a favorite destination for sightseers and picnickers. Thanks to those same features, it has also long been a favored dumping ground for killers disposing of bodies. Already this year, eight corpses have been recovered from the desolate area. Over Thanksgiving weekend the stillness of the forest was once again broken by a posse of sheriff's deputies, police and volunteers as they searched the rugged terrain for yet another victim. "If I yelled out. for every dead person buried here to stand up," said one deputy, pausing for a breather in the hot sun, "it would look just like Venice Beach."
A few hours later the searchers found what they had been looking for: the shallow grave of Linda Sobek, 27, a model and former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader who had been missing for eight days. They had been led to the spot by Charlie Rathbun, 38, a strapping, 6'3" photographer who told police he had accidentally struck and killed Sobek with a car during a photo shoot for Auto Week magazine. Rathbun claimed he had panicked after the mishap and ditched the body in desperation. But last week, after a medical examiner found no evidence that Sobek had been hit by a vehicle, Rathbun was charged with murder and held on $1 million bail. Meanwhile, Rathbun, who has pleaded not guilty, is being investigated as a suspect in the murder of at least one other young woman.
Sobek's death came just as her career as a model and actress was taking off. For her father, Bob, 62, a retired Los Angeles aerospace engineer, and her mother, Elaine, 57, a homemaker, their daughter's achievements were all the more remarkable because she hadn't been blessed with natural grace. "As a youngster she would do pirouettes across the room, and it was so funny," says Elaine. "She was so klutzy, and I was pretty near trying to keep from laughing." After graduating from high school and Cerritos Community College, she set her sights on modeling. She remained close to her family, especially her brother Steve. Several times she moved out of the house only to return, homesick, a few months or weeks later.
At any rate, the 5'4", size-3 Sobek chose a familiar route to a West Coast modeling career: In 1988 she became a cheerleader for the Raiders, beating out some 1,000 other applicants for one of the 40 places on the Raiderette squad. Outgoing and friendly, she became one of the most popular members of the group, to which she belonged until 1993. After she left she remained friendly with several of the women, including Gretchen Stockdale, 30, who gained a small measure of fame this year by testifying at the trial of her close friend O.J. Simpson. "Linda was the fabric that bound our group together," says Stockdale. "She was always instigating get-togethers." For all her beauty, Sobek had gone out with relatively few men in recent years. "We didn't have dates last Valentine's Day, so we stayed in together and ordered takeout," says Stockdale. "We felt kind of embarrassed." Lately, however, Sobek had begun to enjoy a more active social life.
Sobek was also hitting her stride as a "body model," specializing in swimwear layouts, calendars, beer posters, car magazines and catalogs—including Frederick's of Hollywood. "Linda was making it really big, staying really busy," says Los Angeles calendar producer Roy Morales. She had also recently achieved what she hoped would be a breakthrough, landing a small part on the Fox series Married...with Children. Aside from her looks, says Morales, who often worked with her, what made Sobek successful was her dedication and professionalism. "I was amazed at what a hard worker she was," he says.
In fact it was precisely because of Sobek's reputation for level-headed responsibility that her family first began to suspect that she might be in danger. On Nov. 16, Linda, who had recently moved into a cottage in Hermosa Beach with three roommates, talked to her mother in the morning. She told Elaine Sobek she was running late for a daytime photo shoot and would call that evening to discuss plans for a weekend barbecue.
When Linda did not telephone as promised, Elaine grew concerned. The next morning she called Brooke Morales (no relation to Roy), 27, a former Raiderette and another of Linda's closest friends. "Linda would never let her mother worry, no matter where she is," says Brooke. "Elaine knew something was wrong." Brooke quickly discovered that Linda had also failed to show up for three other scheduled appointments later on Thursday, including a costume fitting for Married...with Children. She contacted police, but neither she nor any of Linda's other friends were able to provide one crucial detail: namely, where the young model had been heading that Thursday morning.
On Saturday, Morales and several friends began contacting newspapers and TV-news organizations about Linda's disappearance. Unknown to authorities, the first clue was already being found. A road-crew worker in the Angeles National Forest discovered photographs of Sobek along with other items, including a date book and a receipt for the loan of a Lexus 450, a new sports-utility vehicle, in a garbage can by a highway. He kept the photos but didn't give them another thought till Sunday, when he saw a news report about Sobek and made the connection. He called police, and with the recovery of the Lexus receipt—apparently signed by one Charles Rathbun—investigators had their first solid lead.
On Wednesday the case against Rathbun began to come together. As police were preparing to question him for the first time, they were summoned to Rathbun's Hollywood home. There they found the suspect drunk, brandishing a pistol and threatening to kill himself. Moments before their arrival he had slightly wounded a female companion. Once in custody, Rathbun tearfully confessed that he had killed Sobek. As he told it, though, the whole thing had been a ghastly accident. He claimed that he and Sobek had headed north of L.A. to shoot advertising photos of the new Lexus at a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert. Rathbun said he'd been trying to teach her to do "doughnuts"—high-speed, 360-degree turns—and while she was outside the vehicle watching him perform the maneuver, he accidentally struck and killed her.
He told police he had then driven around in a panic for several hours with Sobek in the car. Fearful he would be accused of murder, he finally pulled over in the national forest and buried the young woman in less than two feet of dirt, scraping out the grave with his bare hands and some makeshift tools. Within hours of his arrest, Rathbun was being taken by police for an all-night search for Sobek's body, which he had trouble locating. It was not until Friday that searchers found the site. Lying fully clothed, one arm jutting up through the pebbles, Sobek's body showed no signs of extreme violence—no wounds or serious bruises. Meanwhile, Rathbun continued to give the impression—calculated or not—of being highly distraught. A few hours before leading police to the grave, while being held in a jail cell at the Hermosa Beach police station, he cut his wrists with a disposable razor. "If you can call a few superficial scratches a suicide attempt," says Sgt. Ron Spear of the L.A. County Sheriff's department, "then I guess it was."
In fact police were skeptical of Rathbun's story from the start. The car-accident scenario seemed farfetched to begin with, and X rays found no evidence that Sobek had suffered traumatic injury or broken bones. Then investigators learned that in June 1979, Rathbun had been charged with rape in his hometown of Worthington, Ohio. The woman, who worked with Rathbun at a local supermarket, maintained that he had threatened to kill her if she made any noise. After the attack, she told police, he had explained that he "wanted to be punished for what he had done," and that he had "told people he was sick, but no one would believe him." Ultimately, with his lawyer arguing that it was a consensual act, Rathbun was acquitted of the rape charge.
For Rathbun, who was 22 at the time, the episode seems to have been the only serious brush with the law in an otherwise unremarkable youth. The son of a retired management consultant, he is remembered as an average student in high school, with a knack for photography. He got his start as a photographer's assistant in Detroit, shooting mostly automobiles for advertising agencies and manufacturers. About six years ago he moved to California, where he built a fairly successful career, doing car layouts and calendars.
Much like Sobek, he was respected by employers and colleagues for his reliability. "He was an excellent photographer; you certainly can't take that away from him," says Bob D'Olivo, director of photography at Petersen Publishing in Los Angeles, which publishes a host of magazines, including Hot Rod and Motor Trend. Lately, according to some agents and editors, Rathbun had emerged as one of the top photographers in the automotive field.
Yet, unlike Sobek, he had a habit of rubbing people the wrong way. For one thing, he had a nasty temper. "He started throwing things whenever he got mad," says D'Olivo, who employed Rathbun from 1989 to 1992. "Once, he tossed a chair across a photo studio." D'Olivo also noticed that there was a pattern to Rathbun's tantrums. "When things started going wrong, Charlie could never admit it was his fault," he says. "It was always someone else's, or the fault of the equipment."
Moreover, Rathbun developed a reputation for coming on to the models he used in his shoots. Partly as a result, D'Olivo eventually stopped steering assignments his way. Another photographer says that the problem became so well-known that at least two models started refusing assignments once they learned Rathbun was the photographer. "They stopped working for him about six months ago," says the photographer. "They just felt uncomfortable." Sobek and Rathbun had worked together in the past, though it is unclear whether there had been any problems.
One of the questions Rathbun will surely face is why he had hired Sobek for the Auto Week shoot in the first place. The magazine does not use models in its layouts; the cars themselves are always front and center. "I couldn't even begin to speculate what she was doing with him," says Leon Mandel, publisher of Auto Week.
There were reports last week that police had found a cache of photographs at Rathbun's house, some depicting women in deathlike poses. According to one law-enforcement source, however, only a single picture was uncovered, and it showed nothing more sinister than a scantily clad woman who appeared to be sleeping.
All the same, Michigan authorities are interested in knowing if he has any connection to the 1993 disappearance of Rose Larner, a young Lansing woman who happened to live near an address Rathbun had given six months earlier for a driver's license. California investigators now suspect Rathbun may have been responsible for the murder of Kimberly Pandelios. a 20-year-old part-time model, whose body was found in 1993 in a shallow grave in the Angeles National Forest not far from the spot where Sobek was buried. Police believe that she had had some contact with Rathbun in the past, including one occasion when they were seen together at a Denny's. When last heard from, Pandelios, who was married with a 2-year-old son, was on her way to a photo assignment in the Glendale area with an unknown photographer. Her burned-out car was found not long after she vanished, but it was a year before her remains were discovered by a hiker. "We're looking for connections between the cases," says Lt. R. David Dietrich of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department. "We're looking into anything he may have done before."
Anything they find, of course, will be of little consolation to the Sobeks, who still can't believe that Linda—always so cautious and sensible—has been taken from them. But they draw strength from recalling the spirit they miss so much. "It's going to be happy and it's going to be sad, and people are going to be able to share their thoughts and feelings and help us begin to heal," says Elaine Sobek. "We can do that because Linda is leading us."
JOHN HANNAH, JOHNNY DODD and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles and CLARE MEAD ROSEN in Detroit
- John Hannah,
- Johnny Dodd,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Clare Mead Rosen.